I don't know if you noticed, but last winter a struggling studio named the Walt Disney Company put out a small independent film called Frozen. It's about the life of a magical, talking snowman and how he shows two sisters, one who has winter-based powers and one who doesn't, the meaning of true love. Oops...
It's about the life of a magical, talking snowman and how he shows two sisters, one who has winter-based powers and one who doesn't, the meaning of true love.
The movie seemed to make a buck or two and gained a lot of praise for how Disney bucked it's "helpless little princess" ways of past movies. Newspapers and feminist blogs everywhere raved how Anna is saved by an act of sisterly love, and not by any man! In fact the usual tropes of love at first sight or openly mocked by having the initial love interest becoming a right bastard. Disney has finally found a progressive princess to be proud of -- unlike those meek and boy-crazy monarchs of the past. Oops...
There are still newspapers.
On the surface this feminist proposition sounds justified. From Snow White to Rapunzel, Disney "princess" heroines mostly concern themselves with men. By reading the back of the box of these films, these girls can exude the appearance of ditzy, meek little things that need to be saved rather than role models that modern girls should emulate. Even the Disney Princess line of toys perpetuates that stereotype, by covering all toys in pink, purple and other pastels and keeping themes to salons, kitchens and dress shops. On the surface, these past princesses are only about the tiara.
But I object the premise of the argument. In fact most Disney movies show young women that I would be happy for my own Princess to mimic. Most of these heorines are everything I strive to teach my daughter about being kind, strong, true to beliefs and taking risks. In what I will dub the Princess Conspiracy, I will show you how strong these women are princess by princess using Disney's own princess collection.
Lets start in order, shall we:
Snow White: Sure, she's demonized for her looks by a vain step-mother, and banished to die, but she convinces her executioner not to do it. Then she breaks into a house and pretty much takes over. Sure she cooks and cleans, but it's the 1930's. Name another 1930's film that features women in both the heroine and villain roles.
Cinderella: Here's a girl who is stripped of her title and acts as a defacto slave to her step-family. Does she wilt or whine in her situation? No! She performs her tasks dutifully and trains mice in her spare time. When she wants something she goes after it, creating a dress from scraps to attend the only thing that could distract her from her miserable existence. And when she is thwarted, who comes to her rescue -- another woman! Then at the end when the palace lackey comes around with the glass slipper, she defies her oppressors and was like, "Yeah, that's my slipper bi-otch. I'll see you losers later." I'm pretty sure if the prince didn't come a-calling, she would have led the mice on an all-out revolution.
Aurora: OK, this gal is pretty damsel in distressy, but in her defense, she had no idea what was going on. Her parents hid her a forest with three old ladies for 16 years. Then she sleeps for the other half of the movie. It's hard to play a liberated sleeping woman.
Ariel: This sixteen year old may fall in love a bit quick, but her determination and risk-taking shows that she will not bow to any man. Her quest actually has to do more with the human world, and the man is just the cherry on top. And when her dad throws a hissy fit, does she give up and cower to a man's whims? Hell no. She trades a part of herself to get what she wants. A less progressive women would have sought out the nearest merman and popped out a litter of merpeople while being trapped in a loveless mermarriage.
Belle: She's incredibly intelligent and reads during a time when women -- or most people -- were not literate. When people allude to the idea of taking a man, she's like "screw you, a-hole," and rebukes Gaston's manliness. She sacrifices herself to protect the elderly, and t naturally becomes the leader of a bunch of talking household items. Then she forces the man to submit to her preferences before she will even consider loving him, and not the other way around. It's also interesting to note that the villain is the stereotypical image of masculinity.
Jasmine: Consider for a moment that in many countries of the modern-era Middle East women cannot drive or travel without permission from a man. Then look at Jasmine who freely speaks her mind to the Sultan. Thieves get their hands cut off for stealing a crust of bread, what do you think would happen to a woman who back-talked their father? And she owned a tiger!
Pocahontas: I have actually never seen Pocahontas all the way through. The talking tree threw me for a loop and I never finished the movie. I hear she's a bad-ass that saves John Smith and then stays with her people instead of following him back to England.
Mulan: She saves China from the freakin' Huns. The. Freakin'. Huns.
Tiana: Hard working, independent thinker, and a thirst to be a small business owner. That's a pretty large, non-stereotypical role for a black woman in the 1920's. In fact it is the prejudice of the white, male bankers that deny her ambition. But she displays tenacity and grace as she keeps pursuing her dream. She doesn't even let getting turned into a frog get in her way. She makes the prince work for her affection as she thinks he's a jerk for most of the movie. And in the end when she could retire to the palace and live the life a leisure, she says "Not in this lifetime! I'm opening my damn restaurant and you, Princy-boy, will be my waiter. I am the wage earner in this family!"
Rapunzel: This is the most intriguing princess, as on the service she seems like the demure cliche of femininity. She bubbly and optimistic and naive and wears pastel purple. What a ditz. Then when the man shows up, she smacks him into submission, forces him to escort her around and do her bidding, rescues him multiple times, and even saves HIS life in the end. By the way she proposed to him. It's clear that its her kingdom and he's merely the arm-candy.
Merida: In every way throughout this film, Merida defies her "womanly" expectations and outshines every single man to the point where they are merely background characters. Not only does she not have a love interest, she humiliates all who even tried.
You may think that Disney movies only show vulnerable, flighty women, and I will respect your decision to be wrong. The princess product line may make this rather strong group of teenagers look like vapid airheads whose only thought is about their perfectly quaffed hair, but I believe that's a horrible disservice to the source material. I, for one, will confidently show these movies to my daughter so she can view a wealth of positive female role models.
Except for Pocahontas. Talking trees freak me out.
Jack Grubb writes an incredible blog, Losing the Internets, which is read by at least 37 people and over 2,100 Russian SPAM bots. In his spare time he helps small companies find their marketing voice. Jack currently lives deliberately in Appalachia, Kentucky with his wife, two daughters, Jack Russell and a Lego collection beyond compare.